It all starts with our arrival at the hotel pre-race in Jo’Burg, I’m looking around wondering who else is taking part;some are obvious; wearing old race shirts, others not at all like Dion & I, dressed like we are off on holiday knocking back a few beers; and then the ‘Austrian Army’ dressed in their team colours with ‘KAEM‘ emblazoned across their kit, very obvious. We all start to congregate the following morning ready for the flight to Upington & start to make our introductions. Flying into Upington the starkness of the surrounds starts to dawn on all of us crammed into a tiny little plane, pretty much full of runners, as we look out the windows down below. It’s not long before we’ve landed & bussed the remainder of the distance to the Kalahari Augrabies Falls Lodge, a last taste of luxury & our pre-race base. On arrival we meet Nadia & Estienne Arndt, the masterminds behind this awesome challenge & are presented with our goodie bags, map & keys to our respective lodges. For the runners not travelling with a friend, the opportunity to meet their new room mate. Lucky for me I was running this with hubby, so know my roomie very well indeed.
It’s funny how you meet people & quickly form your ‘group’ from the very first night & start to make the unbreakable bonds we now all share after sharing such an amazing experience together. Our first dinner together is a traditional South African ‘potje’, with plenty of Namaqua wine on tap (one of the race sponsors) and sit down to get to know our new friends.
The next morning is registration & briefing. Estienne talks us through how the race will be marked, how the checkpoints work and some of the do’s & don’ts for the next week whilst the midges make an attack on all of us, and the local monkeys scamper about in the background wreaking havoc. It’s then the process of getting all our kit checked out by the officials to make sure we have all the mandatory kit & of course enough calories to last us. We are all busy checking out each other’s kit, checking out who has brought what, relief when you see others have the same or similar bits, and questions when you see other bits & pieces. We get a final weigh in and a cursory chat with the medics to make sure we are all certifiably sane! Then it’s time for the serious business of lunch, burgers & cordial, whilst fending off the monkeys & chatting to the fellow competitors about your final dry weight (pack without water), what food you’ve got for along the way, & of course how we all seem to have put on 2kgs before the race even started! Think the scales might have been off! Dion & I don’t hang around too long as other peoples comments about your food that you don’t have enough, or you don’t have the right stuff, start to get in your head so you’re best off not really getting into it; it’s too late to change anything anyway, and we had done enough research that we felt comfortable with what we had. That evening we all meet again for a group dinner, a bit more subdued than the night before as people start to get the pre-race nerves, so it’s a quiet night for all ready for the big week ahead.
It’s finally here! Quite hard to believe that all that a training, preparation & hard work is now about to culminate into the adventure of a life time! Temperature is a bit cooler than previous years to start, and for this I am eternally grateful for. We are told that due to the high river levels we are going to have to start the day going through a river crossing, advising us to perhaps take our shoes & socks off to save them getting wet & perhaps resulting in blisters….not for us, hardened by running in the Manchester rain, why would we avoid the water, we spend most of our time running with wet shoes! So Dion & I make the decision to run straight through as this is also what the front runners would be doing. We get a final role call & we all line up under the starting banner just as a massive Gemsbok joins us for our start. With a final wish of luck, we are off! I make a strong start & actually hit the river crossing with the Gemsbok beside me which is an exciting start to my race, running eye to eye with him through the water. It’s pretty much a warm up for the week with today’s stage totalling 26km (16miles). I run though the first 2 checkpoints strongly, filling up with water along the way & am astonished to be told at the 3rd checkpoint that I’m 2nd lady! Shit! Hardly able to believe that, I head down a monstrous downhill (I hate steep rocky descents) and worry the whole way that the rest of the field will come tearing past me on this stretch, I’d already lost Dion way ahead of me in any case. The downhill finally came to a close at a lake and then the long boulder hopping phase commenced. Grateful in this section to have long legs & a pair of New Balance Leadville’s that seem to stick to boulders, I mange to clamber through.
Thinking we are finally at the finish, the path takes a sharp turn left to finish the last 2kms through some thick, heavy sand, perfect to really zap the legs. Neil Thubron has caught up with me by here so we walk the last bit together, chatting away, putting in a final ‘run’ to the line. What a day, I’m over the moon to find out I am 2nd lady and in the low teens overall, with Dion in the top ten! What a start. Dion has my spot beside him reserved so I go about doing some stretching, rehydrating & refuelling and setting up my bed for the night. The first night routine sticks the entire week, with Dion getting in first & the rest of our gang arriving & placing ourselves around him, I make sure I stretch thoroughly, get changed into my camp casuals, drink, eat, drink, eat & make sure I book in for a massage (a half hour with Jess everyday was a Godsend) and making sure I spend plenty of time relaxing. It was great to receive the message so support that friends & family had emailed in each day, that was a real boost. Of course there is plenty of chit chat around the camp & it was truly spectacular to get to meet 62 fantastic competitors. We had a blind runner, Patricia, taking part, lead strongly by Jess her guide, so we would all congregate at the finish to cheer them in, the first day in particular brought a tear to your eye, especially thinking about that horrible descent & the boulder stage which was tough enough when you could see where you were going. Each night you get given your starting time depending on your placing, so the next day saw me heading off at 8am with the latest group to start.
After a restless night, not much of a camper, we all start the process of getting ready. I’m amazed at how my legs feel, not half as sore and tender as after a marathon or even a half, so really keen to get going. Each morning I would do some Bikram Yoga poses to make sure I was stretching well. We all would cheer the earlier group heading off, wishing them well & wondering when we would see them again, hopefully passing them along the way was always the plan! A slightly longer leg today of 33kms(20.5 miles) with some very strange weather coming to the Kalahari…..rain! It never rains in the Kalahari they say, but rain it did! A dramatic thunderstorm complete with strong shards of lightning gave the scenery a dramatic & theatrical edge. It was fun running today catching up to the slower runners, learning who was who along the way & quick bursts of chatter along the way. The one thing you notice quickly is how supportive we all are of each other, it’s a great week of hearing how amazing you are and a great chance to shower your new friends with equally gracious compliments. I thought for sure I’d slow down today and the rightful 2nd lady would show her face…but no, I continue on with another strong day, finishing in the same position. Well chuffed with that, I enjoy my Mountain House Macaroni cheese for the night, pondering how I am going to keep this up for another 5 days.
Again, another 8am start, so after yet another restless night trying to sleep whilst the barrage of snoring kept me awake, I enjoy yet another flapjack & cup of tea and get ready to go. The mileage is building up, 37km (23 miles) today, so I try and pace myself, as Dion kept saying “run your own race, don’t worry about what anyone else is doing” which is easier said than done. One, I’ve never done multi day events so I only know how to run the race for that day, and two, I was putting myself under pressure being 2nd lady, I certainly didn’t want to lose that even though my goal was to come here and ‘just’ finish. The weather was starting to warm up a bit now, but not quite the Kalahari oven just yet, so it made sense to use that to my advantage whilst I could. Finishing strongly again, though it probably didn’t look so strong after pushing through the last 5km through a never ending sandy, sand filled, sanded riverbed (did I mention sand?), absolutely soul & leg destroying it was a great surprise to find camp had a ‘pool’, a salty knee high thing of freezing water in which I flung myself in all my kit for what felt like an ice bath. After a few sandy days without a shower it was a welcome experience. It was also good to get back into camp to rest up as the sun got hotter. Definitely an advantage to finishing quicker is that you spend less time in the sun, less time on your feet and you get more time to rest and recuperate.
The long stage. This is what we have been building for, and this is the day that can make or break you. At 75km (46.6 miles) it’s a big day on your feet regardless of who are. The earliest runners are off at 6am, I was off at 10, Dion at 12, and the very top runners at 1pm, truly in the hottest part of the day. I headed off with ‘Princess’ our affectionately named Ginger Dane, Peter. He was setting a cracking pace & I enjoyed running with him for a bit even though I knew I had set off too quick, and shortly before checkpoint 3 I had to let him go. The Kalahari was now showing her true colours with the heat coming in at full force. I got reprimanded at the 3rd checkpoint for not drinking enough water, & made a conscious effort to increase this as much as I could. We had 3 withdrawals on this day, one down to pure dehydration, who got put on a drip, pretty scary stuff. It was a long hard day & plenty of walk run scenarios going on. The sun was really taking it out of me, out of everyone to be fair, and I couldn’t wait for sun to come down. I was going past the slower runners, but at the same time some of the faster runners were coming past me as well. I was wondering how long it would be before Dion caught me up too. There were some low points, feeling pretty exhausted I was keen for it all just to be over. I passed the girls at checkpoint 7, Polly & Annelise who appeared to be having a great time, I was seriously struggling as I went shuffling past them. It wasn’t long after that that my shuffling ceased to a walk, joined by Bakiya (last years female winner), before the girls caught us up again as they were powering on with an army style march. I knew I had to hang on to them to carry me through the last bit as I was quite literally fading away. They got me to checkpoint 8 & could see that I had nothing left in the tank, & quite frankly couldn’t be bothered to eat now. But they made me, they cooked up some instant mash & mug shot pasta for themselves & shared some mouthfuls with me. Bakiya was also struggling so the four of us agreed to head off together as it was now pitch dark so it would be better together. Dion passed us just as we left the checkpoint, with a cursory check on me, he carried on into the night going strong. 6km’s later at the last checkpoint the food hit me & I had a sudden burst of energy, and we started running, I checked with the girls but they were going back to a walk run, so off I went on my own through the night to reach the end. You could have heard me coming, stumbling & groaning through the sand to reach the finish. It’s funny to see the video now, but having a camera thrust in my face after 12hrs on my feet, all I could manage was ‘I need some rest!’ Not quite the witty response I would have envisaged. I was happy to see Dion, Princess & Neil, but we were all cream crackered. Wisely I did make sure I had my recovery shake (chocolate For Goodness Shakes) & some dinner as the girls made it in & we all hunkered down to try & get some shut eye as a steady stream of people came through the night. I can’t recall what time it was but it must have been about 8.30am the following morning when we were made aware that Patricia & Jessy were nearly there, so it was a good excuse to get up & stretch the legs to cheer them in after what was no doubt the longest day & night of their lives.
Rest Day – Day 5
Our camp was in a lovely spot, along the banks of the Orange River, with Namibia in swimming distance. There was no way I was missing out on the opportunity for a swim, so headed down to the river with the girls & managed to scavenge some shampoo from Annelise for a delightful hair wash! The water was freezing, but so worth it, until I saw the size of the massive fish! Glad I was done, I washed out all my kit & dried off in the sun for a bit. I spent the day just chilling, taking some video footage of the others with their thoughts & just eating and drinking as much as possible. Everyone was in really high spirits and there was a really good vibe around the camp. It was resembling a refugee camp with people walking in slow motion, some hobbling, some with the bodies being held together with tape and some with some seriously sore looking feet. It was bloody hot though, so it was a matter of trying to lay still & keep as cool as possible. We all went to bed early, as you do every night, when the sun goes down it’s time for bed, and apart from me having to ask a couple of ladies politely to stop chit chatting (they’d had all day for that!) I actually had a really good sleep. I think you just start to get so tired that it doesn’t matter how uncomfortable you are, you are going to sleep at some point.
This being the 2nd last day & what sounded like a walk in the park at 45km’s (28miles, just over a marathon); I think we were all lulled into a false sense of the downhill stretch. Ha! Not likely. The wind had come up along with the heat and it was in sandstorm conditions that we headed off. I was again in the 8am group with all the top 20, having held roughly onto my position. Dion was off like a shot with Princess and they had a really strong race for most of the way together, coming across a snake, and getting slightly lost for a few minutes. This day was my worst and best rolled into one. It was unbelievably tough. The conditions weren’t pleasant to say the least & I was getting tired, I pushed as hard as I could and had to fight back tears along the way. I had Bakiya behind me for most of it, I didn’t want her to pass me and start to eat into my hour lead I had on her, so my main goal was to keep her at bay or at least keep her in my sights as I knew as an experienced ultra runner she was coming into her strength. She did come past me at checkpoint 5, so I followed her, which was hard to do as the trail was quite all over the place & I though she must have got a long way ahead of as I couldn’t see her anymore which deflated me even more, unbeknownst to me she had gotten lost and was actually behind me again. I managed the stage in just under 6 hrs which is actually an amazing time for that distance all things considered, but when I crossed the line to see Dion waiting for me I burst into tears, he held me as I sobbed uncontrollably for a few minutes before I collected my water & headed back to camp where a few more tears ensued. It was unashamedly the hardest thing I have ever done. It at the same time I was so happy to have accomplished it that they were years of joy as well. I was pleased to hear that most people had shed some tears and found to equally as tough, and kept welling up each time another friend would arrive and also burst into tears. It was an emotional day for us all, but this was it, we would all finish now, with one day to go of 26kms, we knew it wouldn’t be a walk in the park but we were all going to make it! The wind didn’t die down until nearly nightfall so we were all utterly exhausted & covered with sand from head to toe and in any & every orifice, so it was a pretty gritty night.
The earliest runners left at 5:30am, I was off at 7:30 and Dion at 8am. This was quite literally the downhill stretch of 26km (16miles) though there were a few hills to conquer and I soldiered on. I was pleased to see Moon rock which we had to climb over indicating we were only a few Km’s from the finish, and this is where it went wrong, the only part of the race that was poorly marked and I got lost. Actually quite a few people got lost. I was so frustrated, I wasted about 15 mins lost amongst the reeds and rocks, seriously thinking my race was over at one point as I couldn’t find a way out. Finally I headed out towards what was the road (in the wrong direction mind) but I managed to flag a passing car down that sent me in the right direction. Dion had overtaken me without knowing it as I was lost which was a shame as we probably would have finished together. It was so great to see that finish line and cross it. Everyone felt like a celebrity when they crossed as all the focus was on you with everyone wanting to hug you and congratulate you. It was truly wonderful. What a welcome relief to find cold beers & sandwiches awaiting! They went down an absolute treat, normally drying out sandwiches made with way too much butter spread on would turn me off, but these never tasted so good! There was a swimming pool at the finish which I duly dived into with all my kit! How good did that feel! A final weigh in showed I’d lost 4.5kgs during the week, which I probably put back on in the first night!
After cheering everyone in we were given our keys& off we went for our long awaited showers. It was great to get cleaned up and into some normal clothes and eat some real food. I don’t know how many bacon & egg burgers the lodge sold that lunchtime, but it was a lot! Princess even ate 2! Dinner was a traditional Braai, with loads of beers & wine followed by a series of 10 shots! Why oh why!
It was a day of leisure to prepare for the awards ceremony, and Dion & I made use of that by hiking about 10km along the Klipsinger trail back to Moon Rock so he could show me where I had gone wrong. We weren’t the only ones with that idea and we caught up with quite a few others along the way. We even found one of the Fluro trail markers that even the sweeper had missed it was so hard to find!
The awards night was really well done, the tables were all done up nicely & we all donned our nice clothes and it was a truly special night. The presented us with our trophies and each person got the same recognition, from 59th to 2nd (1st has to get a bit more!). It was great. My first ever podium finish! I was so excited! And so proud! I was 14th overall and 2nd lady with 33hrs 39mins. Dion was 6th overall which was absolutely amazing in 28hrs 20min. What on earth could happen next?!?! The night finished with an auction for the race map on canvas which Dion bid for and duly won! What a great reminder of our first ever multi stage race, along with our stunning trophies and our treasured memories.
What a fantastic event, it was so well organised, the people were fantastic; from the runners to the volunteers; and such a magical part of the world. I was skeptical at first about the talk on the website about how everyone becomes family (a bit cynical if you will) but now I get it, I really get it. I am already missing my new family & I can see us doing this event again in years to come.
If you are considering a multi stage event, then seriously consider this one. It’s not over subscribed to, so get into it whilst it still is relatively unknown and still affordable, it’s an experience you will never forget but will no doubt want to repeat! Not to mention it is about a third of the price of Marathon Des Sables!
I will do another blog soon to go into more detail about what kit I took, what food I took, what I wore and what it would keep the same or what I would change which some do you might find useful in your own preparations, or not 🙂
Thanks for reading!